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Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awards $35M grant to African farmers to develop self-fertilising crops

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Photo Credit: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

According to the UN, up to 65% of Africa’s arable land is deemed degraded, resulting in crop yields that are only about a third of the world average. Africa, which consumes only 4% of the world’s fertiliser, is highly dependent on Russian supplies while fertiliser prices have risen by as much as 150% due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. So, developing crops that absorb nutrients naturally would increase yields without fertilisers.

In the similar news, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that a $35M grant from its Agricultural Innovations project has been awarded to a Cambridge University-led project to develop self-fertilizing crops for African farmers.

Over the next five years, the $35M award will support the Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA) research initiative. The research consortium aims to improve nitrogen uptake by food plants in order to reduce the demand for fertiliser on some of the world’s most degraded land.

“The pioneering work of ENSA is fundamental to levelling the playing field for smallholder farmers in Africa, leveraging the latest crop technology to ensure all communities have the chance to thrive,” said Joe Cornelius, CEO of Gates Ag One. “Breakthrough advances in crop science and innovation mean intractable challenges like nutrient uptake and soil health need not hold back agricultural development. We’re delighted that Gates Ag One can support ENSA to continue its work to meet the needs of smallholder farmers.”

ENSA’s research optimises crop-microorganism interactions to make greater use of nutrients already present in the air and soil, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. At the moment, only legumes such as beans and peas can spontaneously convert nitrogen from the soil via rhizobia bacteria. Replicating this ability in other crops, such as grains, will improve production of vital staple foods in a sustainable manner.

“African agriculture is at an inflection point, with vastly increasing demand at a time when supply is at risk, especially due to a changing climate,” said Giles Oldroyd, Director of the Crop Science Centre and Russell R Geiger Professor of Crop Science. “The outcomes of this work have the potential to see gains as great as those from the Green Revolution, but without relying on costly and polluting inorganic fertilizers. Increasing production of crops sustainably in smallholder farming systems, like those in sub-Saharan Africa, directly addresses some of the worst poverty on the planet.”

ENSA is a Cambridge-led international collaboration with the following partners: the University of Oxford, the NIAB, the Royal Holloway University of London, Aarhus University, Denmark, Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands, the University of Freiburg, Germany, and the University of Toulouse III. Paul Sabatier of France; University of Illinois of America; and Pennsylvania State University of America.

Gates Ag One, a non-profit division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was established to use crop science from around the world to meet the needs of smallholder farmers in South Asia and Africa.

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